Peyton St. George – Duke Softball

“There isn’t one solid defining moment of my career that I felt like has defined me. Yet, my freshman year of college was one of the most challenging years of my life just because when I lost my identity in softball, I also lost my identity as a person. It took a long time for me to realize that softball is something I do, it is not who I am. When I was faced with a rigorous academic calendar and 20+ hours of practice a week on top of a very poor mental state that crumbled so rapidly, my world fell apart. I was depressed, I was anxious, and I no longer had motivation for the things I loved. A game that I had devoted my life to without question no longer brought me happiness and I had trouble defining myself without softball.”

“I felt that this year of college was the key growing point in maybe my entire life up to this point. Before college I had always undermined mental health in athletes, and it wasn’t until I was crumbling underneath the pressure of it all that I started to truly question why something so important isn’t openly talked about. Softball is easily one of the most demanding sports to play in college. You’re playing 4 games a week in season from February to the end of May (about 60 total), the travel and practice hours on top of only 1 day off a week can make it seem nearly impossible to stay afloat with academics and a social life. Between dozens of missed classes and endless hours spent in an airport, it only became harder to keep up with school. I learned to confront these pressures head first and not only to relearn how to love the game, but how to love myself first without softball.

“In the big scheme of things, softball will only be a little part of my life but I can truly say that it has helped me define who I am with and without the game. As a student-athlete at one of the most prestigious universities in the country, I often thought I shouldn’t struggle because I had every resource I needed.  Even when you have everything at your fingertips, it is okay to feel as if you have nothing and I wish I knew that sooner. I am a firm believer that what you put in the game, the game will return.”

“I vividly remember laying in my bed one morning and my mom sprinting in my room to tell me that Duke just announced they would be starting a softball program in the year 2017. Her exact words were… “Imagine how COOL that would be to be on the first softball team at Duke.” As a rising freshman in high school who was very late in the recruiting process, I immediately thought that was a feat so far out of my reach. Fast forward a few years later and I am walking with the newly announced head coach through an empty grass field, the location where our stadium would soon be on Duke’s campus. It wasn’t even a question when I was offered a spot on the team, especially as the first ever commit. Even without softball, Duke is one of the most prestigious schools in the country and that alone would be enough to carry me through life when it comes time to hang up my cleats.”

“The summer going into my junior year of high school I had a few options to weigh with where I would be committing. I was in love with a larger caliber school in the SEC until Duke’s head coach had called me showing interest later that summer. My pitching coach had put it as blunt as he could when he asked if I wanted to go to a school to break records or set them? From that point on it was an obvious answer that Duke would become my home not just for the 4 years of college, but for life. Easiest decision I’ve ever made, now I just needed to set records.”

“Don’t get me wrong, starting a program isn’t all kittens and rainbows as it may seem. Building a culture literally from the ground up has been a very difficult process. Our team has had their ups and downs, and it wasn’t until this past year that we were finally able to see our culture and love for the game in action. A turning point this season for Team 3 was definitely our 1-0 win at undefeated Texas in late February. We were so used to being the underdogs because we were “new”, “young”, and “inexperienced”. This past year really showed how much we had grown as a team and there wasn’t a single person who doubted that we didn’t belong on that field with the #3 team in the country, regardless of how young our program was. Becoming a top 25 team in the 3rd year was the new standard for us and we weren’t going to settle for anything less. With the season being cut short, our once unattainable goal of making it to the NCAA tournament was becoming reality, and little did I know walking through that empty grass field that this team would break records so incredibly fast.”

“Verbally committing to Duke before the softball program really took off was never challenging or fearful to me as a young player, despite the fact that they didn’t yet have an established team or a field. Duke isn’t #1 in the country for student-athletes solely because of their high academic and athletic standards. They are #1 because they create a sense of community among athletes that allow you to excel with endless resources in a tight-knit support system. Many schools that I had visited when in the recruiting process urged me to “avoid” certain majors that may be difficult because they would cut into my athletic commitments. Duke on the other hand not only encourages athletes to pursue any and all majors regardless of their difficulty, but creates programs geared specifically towards the time commitments that a packed season may carry.”

“Duke carries a reputation that is so powerful athletically and academically, always challenging it’s student athletes to be to their full potential in everything that they do. With 6,682 undergrad students, nearly 10% (652) are athletes. To be a part of an environment that is the best of the best was one of the easiest decisions of my life. This also goes to show that you can be at the peak of academic and athletic excellence and still experience the struggles of mental health.”

“I hope my story can help facilitate the talk around mental health and student-athletes, even if it only touches one person. You can have everything there is to succeed and still feel as if you are drowning under the pressure that college athletics throw at you. Being at a school like Duke, there is a large stigma around mental health just because most of the student-athletes excel in nearly everything they do here, it’s the culture that this campus cultivates. Many times, you are either trying to out-perform or out-struggle one another. A lot of athletes throughout their career will never confront the challenges they are faced with, but reaching out for help was one of the best things I ever did for myself.”

“To younger softball players, I hope that they can realize a lot quicker than I did that your performance is not an indicator of your self-worth. At the end of the day your sport is something that you do, it is not who you are. Finding a way to make that separation was crucial for me to grow as a person in college.”

“I wish every single day that I could go back to my freshman self and tell her to enjoy it more. To stop pressing so hard and expecting yourself to be perfect. I wish I knew that the mental struggles I was experiencing were normal among college athletes and then I would’ve maybe reached out for help sooner. Being a rising senior now especially with my last season being cut short, I can honestly say I will never take a single rep, pitch, or game for granted again because for many softball players their journey ends in 4 years. When people tell you to enjoy it because time flies by, they are not lying. If I could be a freshman again stepping on campus for the first time, I wouldn’t let my love for the game slip away. I would embrace the 6am lifts, excruciating conditioning workouts, long nights in the library, and every moment in between because I know when I graduate those are the little things I am in fact going to miss.”

“Instead of internally struggling with failure as a freshman and being so hard on myself, I can see now that being thrown to the wolves at such a young age in a new program has only allowed me to grow. Being a part of a new program was a blessing in disguise because I would’ve never seen growth if I didn’t experience failure first.”

“I hope that sports can bring people together by allowing student-athletes to use their voice now more than ever. By sharing our stories, we can build a community with similar hardships, struggles, and passions…lessening the stigma around mental health. If we normalize the talk around mental health just as much as we did around wins, losses, and stats, more people may feel comfortable when reaching out for help.

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